By Robert Menta- 1/25/01
It has been tough going lately for the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), an organization set up by the major labels to force copyright protection on the budding digital music industry. First several members leave, then it's self-touted anti-piracy protection methods fall easily to hackers who were invited by the group to challenge them. Now its Director, Leonard Chiariglione, is quitting.
The group itself has always been a loose collection of digital music hardware and software manufacturers, computer companies, and the record labels that pushed the group's creation. To many, membership to the organization was accepted under duress, a means to side-step the expensive litigation costs threatened by the deep-pocketed major labels if a company didn't join.
Needless to say, a healthy part of the membership is resentful of the pressures to join. Furthermore, since the SDMI had to wait for copyright protection software to be invented, the group forced member manufacturers to hamper their products until a solution was built. For example, SDMI approved MP3 portables can download files from computer to player, but are not allowed to upload music files back.
As its head, Chiariglione had to deal with an internal entropy that is absent from most organizations. Most groups are brought together by a common need. Chiariglione presided over a group constantly at odds with itself over conflicting needs. Because of this, success has been slow to come with various camps employing different tactics to push their side. Furthermore, knowing it would take years to build solid copyright protection software, some manufacturers seem to be taking a passive-aggressive role in the group, paying their $20,000 yearly dues only to stave off more expensive lawsuits. Many analysts feel these companies fully intend on pulling out of SDMI once the anti-piracy measures arrived. The more time it takes to create these measures, the more those dues become nothing more than a short-term insurance policy.
Chiariglione, an engineer who helped develop the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) that MP3 is derived from, also has the misfortune of being a temperamental soul. Constantly irritated by critics who feel the SDMI is a only serving to slow the commercial growth of digital music, Chiariglione always seemed to be fighting somebody both inside and outside of his organization.
Back in November of 1999, we wrote a piece titled "SDMI Executive Director Challenges MP3.com Editorial". A month earlier MP3.com's technology correspondent Eric Scheirer (now the digital music analyst for Forrester Research) wrote a perceptive piece called "The End of SDMI ". In it Schierer methodically pointed out the flaws of the organization including its initial intentions. In the article we wrote this:
"But many in the industry, including Scheirer, feel that it was less about supplying security options to the artist and more about the music industry attempting to take control of the pace and end result of digital music technology".
Scheirer details on what he perceived as the shortcomings of the organization were well structured. Chiariglione's rebuttal, on the other hand, was weak. It simply just dismissed Scheirer's opinions, some of which eventually became fact. Chiariglione is now walking away from the SDMI.
As he phases out his responsibilities, the SDMI will go about seeking a replacement. Meanwhile, the group continues to fall apart with more defections coming. Recently, the leading manufacturer of processor chips found in MP3 players quit.
The End of the SDMI? Unless a very strong leader appears out of the rubble, the end may indeed be in sight.
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